IT'S YOUR HISTORY: Guidelines for Establishing Your Mission Archives

Guidelines for Establishing Your Mission Archives

1. CONSIDER THE BENEFITS. To be the steward of a mission's history is to care for and protect material that records the works of God acted out in the lives of men and women. Now is the time to decide how best to retain the documents that identify your group as unique and provide you with the means to continue to respond to God's call faithfully and productively. A mission archives will:

An archives can also be a resource to national leaders, indigenous churches, and other partners in ministry. Because mission records often contain information on non-U.S. churches they are a rich resource for Christians around the world to explore their personal faith and history. Outside researchers may also wish to consult mission records for graduate school and mission projects, articles on the mission field, books or dissertations, or genealogical information. As simply stated in the Pastoral Function of Archives (Prot. N. 274/92/118 [pamphlet, Vatican City 1997]), "Archives are places of memory for the Christian community and a storehouse for the new evangelization."

2. ESTABLISH MISSION AND POLICY STATEMENTS. Before an archives opens its doors (or drawer), fundamental policy statements should be approved by the highest level of administration. Regardless of the size or simplicity of an archives, these statements are the essential reminder that in order to achieve its primary goals a mission must allocate the necessary resources to its archives. These resources include a person dedicated, even part-time, to the archives, supplies (includes storage shelves, archival boxes and folders in which to house materials), and a secure space where material can be stored, processed, and accessed.

Written policies, agreed upon prior to the opening of an archives, enable the archivist to steer a straight course during the initial operational period. They also help prevent misunderstandings among archives staff, administrators, and users. These policies set the boundaries for an archives. They detail what will and will not be collected, how to dispose of duplicate material, the regulation of sensitive material, and other issues related to the running of a professional archives. Critical policies include:

  1. Mission Statement. Approved by an agency's governing body, this document outlines the responsibilities of the archivist and the authority of the archivist to carry out its mission. The mission statement clarifies the duties of the archives to collect and house records generated by the mission agency staff. An archives must have the authority to collect records independent of their sensitivity, geographic location, or level in the hierarchy. A mission statement should reflect the goals of the mission, not just the archives. All of those with a stake in furthering the mission should be included in the policy. The mission statement should address the following concerns:

  2. Collection Development Policy. A mission's archival collection needs to be shaped according to a plan. Collection development policies

  3. Access Policy. This policy determines the conditions under which different users have access to the records. It outlines approved guidelines for a variety of potential users--administrators, staff, missionaries, or outside researchers (if applicable). While the majority of inquiries made to the archives will come from within, the agency may want to make its material available to a wider public. Whether the archives is opened to the general public or maintained strictly for internal use, it should make material as accessible as possible, without restrictions to its primary users. Personnel files and other sensitive materials may be subject to federal and state privacy legislation and will in most cases have restrictions placed upon their use. The access policy ensures that restrictions are sufficient and consistent. Reasonable caution must also be practiced in allowing outside use of material that conveys information that could jeopardize the security of missionaries or indigenous Christians. Access policies

  4. As well as providing a sound framework that guarantees fair access to material, each of these policies should also encourage use. Moreover, well-crafted policies are best antidote to the problems that arise when a position rotates from one untrained individual to another.

    3. SELECT A PERSON TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE ARCHIVES. The staff member who serves as archivist should receive training that enable him or her to

    The archivist you select may have little training and limited time to dedicate to this project. Still, he or she can be a valuable resource to your organization and will need the highest level of administrative support--only then can continuity be assured. Appointing a willing volunteer (perhaps a retired missionary) rather than drafting a reluctant staff person may be the best option.. Any archivist's term should be at least a year. The archivist will build the team (volunteers included) that will receive, arrange, and describe documents as well as establish and implement critical policies. An advisory committee should be established, comprised of staff from each department, at least one senior administrator, and an outside archivist who can provide expert advice and link the archives to existing resources. This committee participates in establishing guidelines and policies, fund-raising, advocacy within the parent mission, and soliciting archival materials.

    4. ALLOCATE SPACE. Adequate space must be allotted to house material that the archives has collected already, as well as material it anticipates collecting over the next five to ten years. Archival material should be stored in a secure area immune to flood and storm damage. Ideally, the material should be housed in a climate-controlled environment where temperature and humidity levels remain constant and can be monitored by the archivist. At the very least, vital records should be protected in a fireproof vault. Space for researchers, preferably in close proximity to the storage area, is also necessary. The area should be easily supervised and provide researchers with equipment for photocopying.

    5. COLLECT MATERIALS. Archives contain a variety of documents and material. Archivists neither save everything (the insignificant can obscure the critical) nor discard records en masse (and lose the history). The practical and historical value of materials, not the ease of retaining them, dictates whether or not they must be saved. Ideally, an organization should have an intentional records management program that delineates the types of records that should be saved and provides a schedule for ensuring their retention. Among the kinds of material to be saved are:


    Material collected should chronicle every aspect of the mission from the inside out. This documentation may come in various formats: paper records, audiovisual material, electronic resources such as e-mail, web site files and digital databases, microfilm and microfiche, and so forth. Documentation should offer insights into how missionaries were recruited, various methods employed in the field, conditions at various mission stations, the formation of partnerships with national churches, and the impact of Christianity on culture, history, and politics in the regions where the mission has a presence. The archives should allow for an unbiased and objective reconstruction of its organization's history--even though it is sometimes tempting to preserve only that material which puts the agency in the best light. Sensitive materials should be restricted but never purged. An accurate rendering of history is the best guarantee to a better future.

    Gathering material is a crucial step in starting an archives. After the archivist surveys the material, his or her next step will be to prepare an inventory that will enable him or her to order the collection in a way useful to patrons, be they internal or external. Arrangement of material according to archival principles will preserve the integrity of each part of the collection, especially as it grows.

    6. ENCOURAGE USE. Though much energy is expended in collecting and preserving documents, the true purpose of an archives is to make material accessible. Materials should support the work of a mission, enrich the organization's identity, and stimulate reflection on the mission's history. It is the thought of using a collection that will motivate individuals to supply the time and money necessary to start and maintain an archives. One successful way to heighten awareness and excite interest in an archives is to periodically circulate reports to the staff that

    Mission staff can benefit from the archivist's expertise in culling illustrations and documents for publications and answering historical questions. When staff begin to use the mission archives they will benefit in ways they could not imagine when material sat unprocessed in boxes.

    7. UTILIZE OUTSIDE RESOURCES. The issues faced by mission archives are the same as those faced by archives at universities, seminaries, denominations, ethnic and labor organizations, state historical societies, and many other kinds of archival repositories. Organizations are in place to serve archives--among these are professional societies and training programs geared toward the new archivist (see attached list.) A wealth of relevant literature is available. Working archives are another rich resource for beginning archivists.

    8. CONSIDER OTHER OPTIONS. Preserving an organization's history can be a daunting undertaking. Many mission agencies, even those with good record keeping in place, may find it useful to explore a partnership with an affiliated college or seminary that can provide the proper services and care for their archives. There are mutual benefits when an academic institution provides a home for mission archives. The mission benefits from the facilities and expertise of the institution; its archive gains value in the context of the school's library collections, curricular programs, and research atmosphere. The school benefits from the sense of heritage provided by the mission archives and from the research potential. However, whether an agency decides to develop an in-house program or to transfer material to an established repository, appropriate archival policies must be in place within the agency. Few academic repositories are prepared to accept chaotic, unorganized archival records.

    9. CONTINUE. The first step to any archival program is nurturing a long-term commitment. By starting even the barest-bones archives an organization is committing itself to making the archives a permanent component of its mission. After the archives is planted, it will not grow without constant care, ongoing budget allocations, and personnel.

    10. DON'T DELAY. Now is the time to decide the course of your mission's history. Will vital records be tossed for lack of room? Continuation of the mission requires an understanding of its past, even in its most basic form. A simple system that guarantees access to staff present and future can be constructed with scant resources (and dedication). The memory of your mission is part of the greater church. Don't let it slip or crumble away.

    Selected Resources--Published:

    A Heritage at Risk: The Proceedings of the Evangelical Archivess Conference, July 13-15, 1988. Available from the Billy Graham Center web site only at:

    An Archival Primer: A Practical Guide for Building and Maintaining an Archival Program, revised edition, 2001. Martha Smalley. $7.50. Available from the Yale Divinity School Library at:

    Starting an Archives. Elizabeth Yakel. $30.00. Available from the Society of American Archivists. 312-922-0140. Also at:

    Selected Resources--Online: This site is dedicated to starting and maintaining archives of Evangelical institutions and agencies. This site includes sample deeds of gifts, guidelines for basic archival description, and much more. It also lists SAA publications.

    Training opportunities: This site lists selected training programs throughout the United States.

    This document was developed in conjunction with the 2001 Consultation on Nondenominational Mission Archives, part of the Currents in World Christianity Project sponsored by the Pew Foundation. The guidelines committee was led by Paul Ericksen and consisted of Kate McGinn, Robert Shuster, Martha Smalley and Beth Yakel; also assisting were Bob Arnold, Dick Pierard and Dave Roebuck. A draft version was presented at the Consultation in November 2001 and afterwards revised to reflect input received during the meeting.

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    Last Revised: 12/13/01
    Last Revised: 1/5/05
    Expiration: indefinite

    Wheaton College 2005